a word for the year

painting info here

“Klostergang” (cloister walk) painting info here

Hello, Reader. If you’re just coming back from the holidays, me too. Today was the kids’ first day back, and I spent a delicious day at the library doing research for a poem on ants, then wrote a poem about nightshade. As a po-friend said: That sounds perfectly normal.

Long time readers may recall that each year I choose a word for the year. Or, the way it actually works is a word chooses me.

I learned this practice from poet, essayist, artist, and life coach Molly Fisk. If you want to learn more about it, she writes about it in this article (but swears those are not her feet).

I like this practice for several reasons. First, it’s much gentler than resolutions which always seem to tend toward the punitive. At least in my little world. Second, it has a focusing effect. The word, once it has chosen you, will come nipping at your heels, or encircling you from behind, or appearing gently before your eyes at various moments. It will remind you of itself and its wisdom for your life. Another thing I love is that all your past words kind of stay with you. A year ends, but it’s not like your word for that year then abandons you. My words for the last three years — persist, tend, NO — they are still my steadfast companions as the year turns again.

This year the word that chose me is cloister.

To quote the Beach Boys: Help me, Rhonda.

I’ve tried rejecting words in the past but it never works, so, dear cloister, I accept you.

cloister: n. 1. a covered and typically colonnaded passage round an open court in a convent, monastery, college, or cathedral; 2. a convent or monastery –> (the cloister) monastic life. v. 1. seclude or shut up in a convent or monastery.

Although it’s tempting, I’m not going to run off and seclude myself in a convent. I’m going to remember that this word is from Latin claustrum “place shut in; enclosure; bar, bolt, means of shutting in” — and make for myself the time and seclusion that writing requires.

I’m going to think about the phrase “often colonnaded” (colonnade: a row of evenly spaced columns) which speaks to me of intention and planfulness.

I’m going to let the fact that cloisters were built around a courtyard — open space, light, air, sky — remind me that even in seclusion there must be room to move, breathe, play, watch the clouds go by.

I will live with cloister, fail to live with it, try again, fail better, rinse and repeat. It will stay with me, but gently.

Happy New Year to you!


balance the day

The wolf at the door (wikimedia)

The wolf at the door (wikimedia)

A book I return to again and again is How to Cook a Wolf by M.F.K. Fisher. It was published during wartime (1942) ostensibly as a guide to cooking on a shoestring when ingredients, fuel, and time were scarce (time because so many women were entering the workforce **UPDATED to say: a faithful friend and reader points out that it was really only more white women who were entering the workforce — that women of color had always worked. And she is right!). I read it less as a guide to cooking and more as a spiritual tome. It both reinforces my sense that the wolf is ever at the door, pacing and snuffling, and somehow comforts me about it. For one thing, M.F.K. writes with a certain authority, and is all about common sense. Like me, she is a fan of double and freeze — (although I’m not sure there was such a thing as a chest freezer back then?? but it appears she put her icebox to good use). She is willing to stretch what she has and scrape together a meal. Amen (insert solemn bow here). This is why I’m inclined to follow her advice to “balance the day.” M.F.K. points out that everyone from slick magazines to scientists to the federal government have, for ages, been suggesting we serve balanced meals. Balanced as in the four food groups (if you, like me, were born a while ago), or as in the proper selections from the food pyramid (if you were born later), or… I don’t know what rubric there is now because, frankly, I have given up. M.F.K. says “Balance the day, not each meal in the day.” She says,

“Breakfast, then, can be toast. It can be piles of toast, generously buttered, and a bowl of honey or jam, and milk for Mortimer and coffee for you.”

Reader, she had me at “toast.” She says,

“For lunch make an enormous salad… or a heartening and ample soup… . That is all you need, if there is enough of it.”

She goes on to make similar suggestions for simple dinners (involving protein and a starch), and says:

“Try it. It’s easy, and simple, and fun, and — perhaps most important — people like it.”

Whether people like it is actually not the most important thing to my mind. The “easy” and “simple” parts are. <mothering interlude: Sister just walked by, noticed the book on my desk and said, “What!? She knows how to cook a wolf?” Second Son replies, “Not literally, Sister, metaPHORically.”</mothering interlude>. Which leads me to my point: I read the “balance the day” chapter (which is actually titled “How to Be Sage Without Hemlock”) both literally and metaphorically. This summer, I’m trying hard to balance the day, even though balance has never been a natural state for me. I think we should all get to sit down to an enormous plate of toast dripping with butter and honey — we should all get to relax and do something just because we want to every day. Sometimes I have about 5 minutes for that, but I’ve been trying to take those 5 minutes and make something of them. I’m also making sure to find that all important time for writing and other creative pursuits. Yes, this often means trading sleep for art, but I’m willing to do it, and happier and more balanced if I do. However you balance your days, I wish you luck. Remember, the M.F.K. model does  not require that each moment be balanced, or even each hour. I am often inclined to stretch her advice and attempt to balance the week. Sit down to your plate of toast sometime. Serve dinner on a shoestring. And consider these words from M.F.K. Fisher, with which I will close:

“[An unnecessary peptic goad, but a very nice one now and then, is a good soft stinky cheese, a Camembert or Liederkranz, with what is left of the bread, the wine, the hunger.]”


we interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to bring you: wednesday wisdom

There's nothing like waking up in a room with a view

There’s nothing like waking up in a room with a view

Normally I’m rather wordless on Wednesday, but yesterday I found myself in the presence of wisdom that I’d really like to share.

Unaccountably, I found myself at the opening address of the Professional Businesswomen of California (PBWC) conference. Are you wondering how this happened? Are you wondering if I was the only poet in the house? All I can say is: crazy s#$t happens in California. And yes.

(Okay, actually a dear friend of mine was on a panel at the conference, so I went up to the city the night before, we had dinner, then yesterday went to the conference).

Anyway, one of the speakers was Rep. Jackie Speier who founded PBWC, and who has devoted her life to seeking equality for women, consequences for non-payment of child support, an end to sexual assault and harrassment, and other worthy causes. Then two women from different fields — Dr. Elizabeth Lindsey (National Geographic Fellow) and Charlotte Beers (advertising guru) — spoke together about what they’ve learned from their work life journeys. The keynote speaker was Arianna Huffington, who needs no introduction.

Partway through the speeches, I realized bits of wisdom were going to get by me if I didn’t write them down. I grabbed some paper and started jotting notes. Here’s what I’ve got for you today:

Wisdom from Jackie Speier:

  • Research shows that success correlates more with confidence than with competence, and that men have more confidence than women. It shows taht men tend to over-estimate their skills and abilities, while women tend to under-estimate theirs. Researchers call this “honest overconfidence” on the part of men (Perhaps this is why women writers don’t always submit like a man?). Jackie says: Women, be more confident!
  • Research shows that involving women in positions of leadership and decision-making improves the bottom line.
  • Make room. Make room in your life for what’s important to you and what energizes you.
  • Fail.
  • Be authentic.
  • (here come’s my personal favorite) Life should not be a journey with the goal of arriving in a perfectly preserved body!

Wisdom from Elizabeth Lindsey and Charlotte Beers:

  • Burn modest. (Meaning burn that word, do not be modest about your genuine worth and achievements).
  • Keep your own scorecard (Meaning don’t worry about the scorecard others keep for you, or that the world keeps for you).
  • The way to thrive in a storm is to transform.
  • Be a wayfinder.
  • Navigation means standing in your own power.
  • Shed other people’s ideas about you. Claim your own, true self-image.
  • Pay attention to your energy. Do the things that energize you even if they’re contrary to what others want you to do.
  • You can only see in another that which exists in yourself.

They ended with a quote from our dear Gerard Manley Hopkins: “What I do is me; for that I came.”

Wisdom from Arianna Huffington and her most recent book Thrive:

  • The third women’s movement will be to change the way the world works, because it’s not working the way it is.
  • Burnout is becoming the disease of our civilization.
  • We are drowning in data and starved for wisdom.
  • Sleep is a miracle drug. Try getting 30 minutes more sleep each night and see what happens.
  • Do not begin your day by looking at your smart phone. Begin it with one minute of deep breathing and intentionality.
  • Life is a dance between making it happen and letting it happen.
  • Quoting Rumi: “Live life as if everything is rigged in your favor.”
  • Quoting Carrie Fischer: “Resentment is a poison that you drink thinking the other person is going to die.”
  • Quoting The Onion (and can we just all pause for a moment of appreciation for a woman who will quote both Rumi and The Onion in the same talk): “World Death Rate Holding Steady at 100%.”

Her main message was that we all need to take better care of ourselves, and that power and money are not the only two metrics upon which to measure success, although those are the metrics our current society uses.

I hope a few of these tidbits of wisdom resonate with you today.


things I know for sure today

Luther's list of 95 Theses. I guess he was pretty sure. (wikimedia)

A famous list: Luther’s 95 Theses. I guess he must have been pretty sure. (wikimedia)

Many moons ago I took a writing class at my friendly neighborhood literary center (well, okay, it was Across The River as we said there, but close enough) the instructor started the first class by asking us to make a list under the title “Things I Know For Sure.”

My page was blank.

Things I know for sure? The longer I live, the more certainty seems to be slip-slidin’ away.

But sometimes there are things that I think I know for sure today. Something might happe to change my mind tomorrow, or even tonight. But for today I’m sure of two things:

1. the brief list of saving things is growing: In fact, it may become the Long List of Small but Saving Things. Added:

  • eggs
  • virtual cocktail hour (this is when you have a glass of wine and text back and forth with a friend who is also having a drink)
  • period dramas (such as — sigh of longing — Downton Abbey. I rest my case).
  • early-to-bedders — for the kids, or you, or both
  • when the semi-secret super library nerd lending program has the book(s) you really want
  • when your library special request comes in, and then you can hold the book(s) you really want in your very own hands

2. you must go read this piece of writing by Francesca Bell about her writing process. A brief excerpt:

“And that is how my writing process works. Or doesn’t work. Or works sometimes, when the stars align, and the two children remaining at home are required to attend school at the same times on the same days, and it isn’t tax season or the holiday season or Mid-Winter Break or Spring Break or the summer, and no one is sick, and inspiration collides, miraculously, with opportunity. I sit at my writing table, during school hours, and I write.”

Can I have an Amen? But really you need to go read the whole thing because it will inspire you, and remind you that you can fit your creative work into your life whatever your life looks like (oh, and coming back to add: and that slow but steady wins the race), and also because you might think that poetry and Teddy Roosevelt have nothing to do with one another, but actually, they do.

And you thought I had nothing to do with poetry? (wikimedia)

And you thought I had nothing to do with poetry? (wikimedia)

Signing off…

friday roundup: a brief list of saving things, using the you, and “What I Mean When I Say Farmhouse”


A Woman's Arm by Adolph Tidemand (wikimedia)

A Woman’s Arm by Adolph Tidemand (wikimedia)

Hello Reader. Sorry about the lack of roundup last week. It was one of those weeks. This week was less one of those weeks, and I’m happy to be here at my desk sharing what I’ve been reading and thinking about. Let us commence:

a brief list of saving things  Speaking of those weeks, I’ve been keeping a tally lately of small, saving things. By saving I mean able to save. Save as in “keep safe or rescue from harm or danger.” Save from the Latin salvāre, “make safe.”

Perhaps it’s overly dramatic (who, me?) to say that the things on my brief list can save a life. But maybe it’s not. And either way, maybe these things can save a day, or a moment, or one’s last shred of sanity.

Here is my list: a cup of tea; honey, just honey; a haircut; cozy socks; a good novel (especially if it’s Life After Life by Kate Atkinson which I hereby beg you to read if you haven’t already); a note from a friend; a text from a friend; a 20-second hug; homemade macaroni and cheese (or as we call it at the Wee, Small House, “Grandma Mac & Cheese”; and, of course, poetry.

What’s on your brief list of saving things? Gentle reminder: don’t forget to save yourself from time to time.

using the you  I’m still reading through Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey, and with every page I’m more and more willing to follow her to the ends of the earth. I would drink her Kool-Aid.

In her essay “On Sentimentality,” she discusses (and argues with) a Philip Sterling essay on the use of the second person pronoun (the “you”) in poetry. Sterling’s essay, which is available to subscribers of The Writer’s Chronicle here if you’re interested, argues that the use of a vague (or not-identified-in-the-poem) “you” in poetry blocks the reader from participating in the poem, and makes the reader “a passive observer, an eavesdropper.” He also argues that use of the “you” can come across as accusatory and condemning.

Ruefle counters: “Sometimes I feel enormously privileged to be a mere eavesdropper.” And she suggests that if the “you” in a poem is vague, or not immediately identifiable, we should “read the poem, use your noggin, figure it out.” (Fist pump for Mary!). She cites Keats’ “This Living Hand” — vague, accusatory, condemning all — as “one of the greatest cases of the ill-defined you in English literature.”

I often experience the vague “you” in poem as an invitation to deeper intimacy than can be achieved with the lyric-I or the third-person. The “you” has room in it for the reader — it says “put yourself in this poem and see what happens.”

If you want to read more poems that contain masterful use of the “you,” I direct you (this is a specific you: by you I mean you) to Jennifer Richter’s Threshold.

“What I Mean When I Say Farmhouse” Well, wow. I completely fell for this poem by Geffrey Davis, which won the The Massachusetts Review Anne Halley Prize. Once again I am begging you to read something: find it here.

Then ask yourself: what poems can you write under the title “What I Mean When I Say (fill in the blank)”; who have you come for?

Thanks for reading. Happy weekend. Go forth and save yourself today.


more on negative space


first edition cover of the classic Virginia Woolf essay, wikipedia

Hi Reader. I’ve felt a little quiet this week. This week at the Wee, Small House there have been fevers and, especially for the eldest child, Fun Lessons to Learn (probably only the parents of young ones will understand this reference to the classic Berenstain Bears video). Well, maybe not so fun. But lessons to learn. There have been brief poetry moments, for which I’m grateful. Today, one of the feverish ones and I are playing paper dolls, for which I’m also grateful — who knew I’d still get to cut, paste, and color clear into middle age!?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of negative space from last Friday’s quote. A friend wrote to me after I posted it and asked: what did I think it meant to create negative space in a life?

I wrote back that, for me, creating negative space in one’s life means making room in your life to be truly yourself. Creating this space probably looks a little different for everyone. It might mean putting space between yourself and people who are toxic in your life. It might mean saying NO to things that you really don’t want to do, or that drain your energy. For creative types, it probably also means making room in your life for your art. For everyone it probably means making room in your life for the people and activities that you love and that nourish you. For me, it partly means getting up really early to have my first cup of tea in a dark and silent house where everyone else is sleeping (known affectionately at the Wee, Small House as “mom’s warm-up time”).

I also think creating negative space in one’s life means having some time and space that is empty, unfilled, unscheduled, unclaimed. This reminds me of a phrase I heard once: “I am a human being, not a human doing.” I think it’s important to have time to just be.

As easy as it is to say I believe all this, it’s quite another thing to make it happen. This is my Year of NO, but I’m still coaching myself through every single volunteer request: No, Molly, you cannot drive the Brownies to Ronald McDonald House. No, you will not use one of your only completely free days of February to chaperon an all-day field trip.

Even harder was a decision I made recently to actually GO AWAY from home for a writing retreat where I will be completely by myself for several days. I don’t think I’ve been completely alone for more than a few hours since 1999. Since the nineties, people. During most of that time, I’ve been the primary caregiver to one, two, and then three young children 24/7. There’s a whole body of research (some of it is here) on caregiving and everyone agrees: Caregiving is rewarding but stressful. During this stretch of time we’ve also had other stresses as a family — chronic illness, cross-country move, a very sick child. And I’m an introvert — someone who gets her energy from being alone, from silence. Let’s just say there’s kind of a premium on alone time and silence in a house with three children.

When I told a wise woman in my life that I was just feeling burned out and overwhelmed, she asked me: What do you think you need? “I need to go away!” I blurted this out without thinking. She said, I agree.

My friends — secular and writerly — urged me to go. You need this! they said. Just go — Husband and the kids will be fine. They said, This (meaning writing) is your life’s work. Go away and do it. And of course I know they will be fine, but I really struggled to give myself permission to do this. Should I really spend the money to go off alone — what about a family vacation? Should I inconvenience other people so I can have this time and space? And Spiteful Gillian just had to chime in too: “Who are you to go on a writing retreat!? You don’t even have a book!” (Precisely, Spiteful Gillian, precisely!)

Deep inside, I knew I wanted and needed the time and space this retreat would give me. Eventually, and remembering the phrase that I’ve been living with — radical self-care — I went with that. I created some negative space to look forward to.

The day I booked my trip was one of the happiest days of my life. I’m not exaggerating. Right up there with wedding day and days the kids were born. And my feelings of being burned out and overwhelmed, while not gone completely, are made easier to manage by the fact that I know I am going to have some time and space soon, that I’m going to have a room of my own.

So, to get back to creating negative space — sometimes it’s in small ways: not going on the field trip. And sometimes it’s in bigger ways: running away from home (wait — did I say running away? I meant going away 😉 ). Either way, it may not be easy to create that space, but whatever negative space you need in your life, I hope you create it.

friday un-roundup: just this quote

"Winter Cherry" by Mary Granville Pendarves Delaney, image here.

“Winter Cherry” by Mary Granville Pendarves Delaney, image here.

It’s one of those Fridays when the roundup is just not going to happen. Sigh. But a lot of other things did happen, so — it’s a mixture. Anyway, I couldn’t let the week close without sharing this awesome quote from Molly Peacock (again from her book The Paper Garden):

The power of a no is also the power to create — and be comfortable with — negative space in a life.

I’ll drink to that! (it must be cocktail hour somewhere — meanwhile, in the P-town it’s hot tea with honey). Have a wonderful weekend!

just two links

chain link, wikimedia

chain link, wikimedia

Reader, it’s Minimum Day. This is the weekly (yes, weekly) half-day of school that my kids, and I think most kids in California, have. I’m pretty sure whoever made up Minimum Day was not a poet. Or a parent, for that matter.

But anyway…

Today’s post is just two links:

This one is a link to several interviews Laura E. Davis has done with writers about their process. I’ve really enjoyed this series of interviews, as it gives me ideas for a few new tricks to put in my poetry bag of tricks. Full disclosure: I am one of the writers interviewed — but for those of you interested in process, this series is not to be missed.

This one is a link to an article about 10 easy and scientifically-proven ways to increase your happiness. I’m usually not a fan of such lists — they can seem like so many doggy tricks — and there’s no way in the world I’d ever plan a vacation and then not go on it (#8 on the list, seriously). But my radical self-care antenna perked up when I saw that 7 minutes of exercise might be enough, that more sleep helps us resist negative emotions, and that our brains can be rewired (pass the wire-cutters, please).

And now I’m off to my happy place, the library, to maximize Minimum Day. Have a good one.